NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Nebraska took the practice field at Vanderbilt University on Monday for its first game-week practice in preparation for the Music City Bowl.
One Husker that didn’t dress for the first practice in Nashville — senior quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr.
Coach Mike Riley wasn’t ready to rule Armstrong out entirely, but he has not practiced since playing in the regular season finale against Iowa.
“My belief is at this point Ryker [Fyfe] is going to start the game for us,” Riley said. “I’m hopeful that Tommy makes progress and could be that emergency guy possibly.”
If Fyfe does get the start it will be just the third of his career, but Riley is confident in the former walk-on’s ability.
“I think there’s a quiet confidence in Ryker that everybody recognizes,” Riley said. “What I see is a guy who is really well liked and respected. I think when he comes in, I think the guys all kind of rally to him. I think they do that because they respect the work that he’s put in.”
Freshman running back Tre Bryant (hamstring) and junior tight end Tyler Hoppes (“concussion symptoms”) missed the practice, but Riley said he was hopeful both would be available come game time.
On defense, linebacker Marcus Newby will be “very, very questionable,” according to Riley.
“He has not practiced yet. His groin injury is getting better, but I don’t know if he’ll be ready for the game yet so I would say doubtful.”
As announced last week, the Huskers will also be without senior safety Nathan Gerry, but Riley maintained optimism Monday that Nebraska has players ready to step up.
“What we need from each guy is to focus on what they do,” Riley said. “The whole idea that we always preach is you do your job. If we get 11 guys doing their job we’ll be OK. You don’t have to be Superman here. We really talk about that quite a bit.”
Antonio Reed will start at safety in place of Gerry. When Nebraska is in its nickel package, cornerback Josh Kalu will move to nickel back and true freshman Lamar Jackson will take over at corner. According to Riley, Nebraska will be in nickel often against Tennessee’s high-powered offense.
“We’re going to have play a great game against Tennessee, but I think these guys will be up for the challenge,” Riley said. “We’re glad to be here. This is a great city and I think it’s a unique city. If we can balance out all of the football we need to do with them getting a chance to enjoy the city and then we win the game that will be a good trip.”
On to some other quick notes from practice:
>>Wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp was at practice on crutches and in a knee brace following surgery last week. That will mean more opportunities in the slot for Brandon Reilly.
“I’m excited about Brandon Reilly in the slot,” Riley said. “I think that he can do some stuff there.”
>>Wide receiver Lavan Alston has left the program per Riley.
>>It was the Huskers’ first full day in Nashville and the players and staff got a pretty immersive Music City experience right off the bat, practicing at Vanerbilt’s impressive facilities not far from Music Row and getting barbecue for the post-practice meal.
For Riley, it was a little bit of a look at a life not lived. Riley was planning to play at Vanderbilt before having a change of heart and choosing Alabama and legendary coach Bear Bryant.
“I was coming here as a matter of fact. I love Nashville. I love the school,” Riley said. “I had written Coach [Bill] Pace for a couple of years. I picked about three schools because I wanted to travel and go away and my dad is from down south. I had a chance to come to Vandy and I ended up down south a little bit.”
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.